Friday A/V Club: Fascism, Anarchy, and Democracy in After-School Clubs

Kurt Lewin's experiment in leadership styles: the movie


When I reviewed Fred Turner's The Democratic Surround yesterday, I had to leave out a lot of interesting topics covered in the book. One was a psychological experiment carried out by the psychologist Kurt Lewin and two colleagues at the State University of Iowa in 1938. Here's how Turner describes it:

OK, we'll let you in, but you have to be the scapegoat.
The Simpsons

They began by asking how phenomena such as scapegoating, submission to authoritarian leaders, and even rebellion against authority might be linked. To answer those questions, they staged an experiment designed to compare the social-psychological dynamics of three kinds of society: authoritarian, democratic, and anarchic. They gathered groups of ten-year-old boys into five-member after-school clubs where they would make masks and play games. They gave each group an adult leader who was instructed to take charge in an authoritarian, democratic, or laissez-faire manner. In the first mode, the leader made all decisions and demanded that the boys simply follow them. In the second, the leader engaged the boys in collaborative discussion to choose their activities. And in the third variation, the leader simply let the boys do whatever they liked with no interference. The results were tellingly consistent with liberal American views of contemporary geopolitics: under the authoritarian condition, the boys either became passive and obedient, or imitated their leader and became aggressively domineering toward each other. They also chose scapegoats and turned on them in unison—not unlike Germans under Nazi rule. Democratic leaders, by contrast, engendered affection and a moderate level of aggression in the boys—something closer to the energetic civic participation expected of Americans than to the dominance/submission dynamics seen in dictatorships. Under laissez-faire conditions, the boys were similarly active and described themselves as quite happy—a finding that Lewin and his colleagues acknowledged but did not dwell on.

As it happens, a couple of months ago I came across Experimental Studies in Social Climates of Groups, a film that Lewin and company made to present their conclusions. It's a dry but fascinating little document, notable not just for its findings but for its unexamined assumptions. It also includes some unintentionally hilarious charts, with what are presented as numerically precise measurements of "aggressiveness and egocentric behavior," "friendliness and we-feeling," and so on. For my favorite, skip to 12:10, where you'll find an attempt to map the levels of hostility against different scapegoats.